Tina Connolly lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and toddler, in a house that came with a dragon in the basement and blackberry vines in the attic. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Rich Horton’s anthology Unplugged: Web’s Best SF. Her debut fantasy novel IRONSKIN is forthcoming from Tor in October 2012, with a sequel in 2013. She is a frequent reader for Podcastle, and is narrating an idiosyncratic 2012 flash podcasting venture called Toasted Cake. In the summer she works as a face painter, which means a glitter-filled house is an occupational hazard.
So one of Wendy’s suggestions for this blog post was my life as a parenting writer. I thought on this for two seconds before I realized that my coping skills for life as a parenting writer mostly involves the plan that in crunch time, we go on alternate-days showering schedule. This is how I wrangled a baby and wrote a book under contract. Also, when you start hallucinating due to sleep deprivation, put the baby someplace safe, like the floor.
Every January, the writers board Codex has a series of flash contests. I’ve done this a few years, and I slowly realized that I really love flash. That’s partly why when I decided to do a podcast this year (this is why you should not take tips from me on time management), I decided it would be a flash podcast. So after a lot of reading, writing, critiquing, choosing, and narrating flash, I’ve come up with some theories about what makes flash work, for me. You can hear me talk a little about this on Toasted Cake #13, which features Helena Bell’s story “Please Return My Son who is in Your Custody.”
There are three things that I think often make flash work very well – emotional turn, worldbuilding, and pyrotechnics. I’m going to use examples of stories I’ve run on Toasted Cake, because I know all these stories are available to hear, and some even to read (I’ve linked those from their respective episodes.)
By emotional turn, I mean a moment when a character makes a choice and changes – of the flash stories I’ve run on Toasted Cake, I’d say Amber Sistla’s “Unglued” (#2) is a good example of this sort of story. So is Sean Markey’s “Shatter Shatter” (#15). And the emotional turn is the sort of thing that makes any story or novel better. It’s just hard to get into 750 words or so, so we don’t always see it in flash.
The other two things are more strongly suited to flash. Worldbuilding by itself is not enough for a story or book, but I think it can be enough for a flash piece. 750 words about a strange world or situation can leave you with the feeling that something strange and awesome has happened. David Goldman’s “Health Tips for Traveller” (#3) and Jason Heller’s “The Occupation of the Architect” (#6) are good examples of these. These do generally tell a story, it’s just that the story accretes slowly, parsed out of the numerous details. For example, in “Health Tips for Traveller” (available to read here on Nature), it’s immediately clear that we’re reading a brochure written by an alien, meant to acquaint humans with their planet. As the pamphlet goes on, it hints at a rich and complex backstory between the Pooquar and Earther peoples. There isn’t a main character who changes, but it’s a complete story that relies on revealing the world we’re in.
And the third is pyrotechnics, by which I just mean someone who has used language or form in new and startling ways. Pyrotechnics could have a negative connotation, but that’s not how I mean it. This often goes hand in hand with worldbuilding—I would say David’s story has pyrotechnics, for example. Another good example is Helena Bell’s work, which is always full of detailed worldbuilding, and gobsmacking pyrotechnics – “Please Return My Son who is in Your Custody” reveals a story in a series of one-sided letters to the neighbor.
Now there are other things that make a flash piece work well, too. So it’s not like you need to throw everything you know about characterization or dialogue out the window. But next time you try writing flash, try focusing heavily on one of these three, and see what happens. And then, if you like the result, send it to Toasted Cake in September. Because I have a lot of free time and want to read more excellent flash (one of these things, at least, is true.)
PS: Check out inkpunk Wendy N Wagner’s poem on episode #23 of Toasted Cake!